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Photograph: L.A. Tenants Union

L.A. Tenants Union Rejects Legislative Compromises, Affirms Dual Power

By the LATU Media Committee

There are now thousands of LATU members on rent strike, many entering the ninth month of their strike. In April, as tenants faced the reality of shelter-in-place orders, lost work, and an uncertain future, LATU committed to Food Not Rent — keeping our rent to prioritize our basic needs of food and medications over our landlords’ profits. As the pandemic continued, the scale of tenant emergency became clear: as UCLA reported, as many as half a million tenant households in Los Angeles are now at risk of eviction because they can’t pay rent. Minimal assistance has been offered by federal, state, and city governments: unemployment insurance that discriminated against the undocumented and those in the informal economy; a just-expired, statewide judicial decision to not to process eviction orders, failing to protect tenants from illegal lock-outs and self-eviction; CDC and citywide rules that offer extensions for rent payments with no canceled debt, and a defense in eviction court rather than a block on evictions; and a vastly under-funded lottery for partial rent payments — a subsidy to landlords, not tenants in need.

Throughout these months, LATU’s demands were constant: we must cancel rent, we must eliminate all rent debt accumulated over the course of the pandemic, and we must stop every eviction, both formal and informal. Through our rent strike, we’ve collectively withheld millions of dollars from real estate investment and our own eventual displacement. With every building that has collectivized their inability to pay, we’ve only multiplied our power as a movement of working class tenants in neighborhoods across Los Angeles. As we enter the ninth month of COVID-19 and of our rent strike, we must affirm our demands as well as the strategies we prioritize to ensure these demands are met.

In LATU, we know that making the most radical demands is the only rational path. As we’ve successfully organized to improve the material conditions of many of our members, nonprofits and Democratic politicians presented the watered-down Assembly Bill 1436. The bill would not have prevented evictions, but rather provided a defense tenants can use in eviction court; it would not have cancelled rent, but rather turned rent debt into household debt. After negotiations, they got AB 3088: a victory for landlords that saddles tenants with household debt, nullifies local emergency tenant protections, and weakens their defense in eviction court.

LATU recognizes the multiple forms that evictions can take: evictions that take place through a court process, the informal evictions of illegal lock-outs often aided and enforced by police, and the self-eviction of a tenant that willingly moves out in fear of future debt. These informal evictions go unreported, but happen just as — if not more — often in our communities. Echoing and even expanding the problems of the Trump administration’s new CDC eviction defense, AB3088 does nothing to protect tenants from illegal lock-outs and self-eviction, or from the lengthy, frightening process of going to court to keep your housing, nor does it provide access to free legal aid. More, a court process requires tenants to answer eviction summons (AKA an Unlawful Detainer) in a very short time. If tenants fail to respond to an eviction order, they will be evicted by summary judgment, no matter what defense they could have used. Allowing the eviction orders to go out consigns millions of tenants to this fate.

Though AB 3088 makes it more challenging for landlords to evict tenants over rent debt accumulated during the pandemic (if they bother to go through the courts), it does not erase this debt. It remains debt that landlords can sue for, bankrupt us for, wreck our credit over. It’s debt that will haunt us until it is paid.

We in LATU have demanded an end to all evictions during this pandemic, for which safe and stable housing is the only current prescription. We have demanded all rent debt accumulated during this economic crisis be erased. We affirm our commitment to eviction defense and our rent debt strike, as the strategies that enact the future we want: a world without evictions, and a world without rent.

LATU is an autonomous tenant-led movement that exists to build tenant power. This is the fundamental goal of our work, which distinguishes us from the non-profit model. Simply put, we are a movement of tenants all across the city united together to make the city we want and need. A full right to the city won’t be handed down through legislation, and we understand that asking politicians for breadcrumbs and band-aids only surrenders our power to them. Instead, we see our direct actions as a manifestation of the direct democracy at the heart of our politics. Through an eviction blockade, we prefigure a world without evictions. Through a rent strike, or rent debt strike, we bring into existence a world without rent. Through over a dozen local chapters rooted in communities across Los Angeles, we’re building neighborhood assemblies that promote grassroots self-management and a restoration of our right to the commons. Through this place-based organizing, we aim to build dual power: to de-legitimize and supplant the oppressive institutions of capitalism and the state.

This is why LATU insists on organizing our rent strikes at the building level, through tenants associations, as well as on the city level, through all of our members. As a tenants association, tenants have the power of collective bargaining, can bring their landlords to the negotiating table to cancel rent, erase rent debt, and/or roll back rents. Through collective bargaining, tenants do not need to wait for the intervention of government; we can claim these wins for ourselves. LATU has already done this. In our own organizing history, the Mariachi Tenants Association, as well as Burlington Unidos, were able to use a rent strike to force their landlords to negotiate, in both cases cancelling all the rent debt accumulated in the strike, and in one case rolling back legal but sky-high rent increases. We affirm our strategy of organizing tenants associations to build power at the building level, with the goal of canceling rent through collective bargaining agreements.

LATU’s long history of rapid response eviction defense is another central practice of exercising tenant power, through which our membership defends our housing. Even before the pandemic, rapid response has been a central tool for us to practice solidarity and wield it against the collusion of landlords and cops who would separate us from a human right. Our recent successes at preventing illegal lockouts with rapid response, including providing emergency plumbing and carpentry to ensure tenants return to safe and habitable housing, demonstrate the capacity of our movement to mobilize at a moment’s notice to keep people in their homes. We work to prevent every instance of eviction — whether legal eviction, illegal lock-out, and even self-evictions — and seek to expand our capacity for rapid response defense and for blockades of the courts and the Sheriffs that would carry them out.

As we have fought for the rights of communities of color to stay put in our five years of organizing, LATU will fight these racist evictions every step of the way: at home, when we organize with our neighbours and pressure our landlords to reduce or cancel rent debt; in the streets, when we grow in numbers as we build community power to defend our homes; and in the courts, by demanding jury trials in order to delay eviction proceedings until there’s a vaccine to COVID-19. Until these eviction cases are heard in court, we’ll continue to grow our movement, pressure individual landlords to cancel rent debt through our tenants associations, and, in many cases, continue to strike. We’ll continue to stage actions at the homes of landlords and organize eviction blockades. Though often public, and publicized on social media, these direct actions are not symbolic protests. They engage with the real, immediate and material conditions of an eviction to secure housing for our members and build our capacity to escalate. We call on all Angelenos to form an association in their building to protect themselves and their neighbors from eviction, and we know that organized tenants will be much harder to evict.

Democratic politicians and nonprofit coalitions seem eager to claim victory over a crisis they have not solved. LATU rejects these legislative compromises and affirms our commitment to preventing the violence of eviction and displacement in all its forms. We affirm our strategies of organized strikes and eviction defense which build tenant power, and we urge tenants across the city to join the thousands of us who have committed to LATU’s vision, who refuse to accept or celebrate a devastating policy compromise. Instead, together, we claim our power now.

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